Investigate attacks by robots disguising themselves as human beings.
PC Release: April 27, 2012
By Ian Coppock
I am mystified by Sega games, I just don’t get them. It’s a topic I can’t not broach after playing Binary Domain, because from my perspective, this game was overstuffed with bad design choices. It doesn’t help that it only sold 20,000 copies in the entire western world. It’s also no mystery that Sega isn’t the same company that brought us the Dreamcast and those glorious days of yore. I feel the need to investigate, because, quite frankly, this was one of the most mediocre games I’ve ever played. Let’s see if we can’t figure this out.
Binary Domain takes place in a dystopian 2080, when global warming has caused much of the earth to flood. Conveniently enough, robots are invented just in time to labor by the millions and build new cities above the waves.
Strict limits are placed on robot sophistication, and enforced by elite squads of commandos called Rust Crews. The game opens shortly after a robot disguised as a human attacks a corporation in Detroit, apparently so well-disguised that even he doesn’t know he’s a robot.
The reasoning behind the robot’s attack is kind of left unanswered, but the Americans conclude that only Yoji Amada, a Japanese robotics guru, could have produced such advanced androids. A multinational Rust Crew is thus dispatched to Japan to arrest Amada.
Players assume the role of American sergeant Dan Marshall, who, along with his astonishingly stereotypical black sidekick Big Bo (AW HEYYULLL NA!) fights through hordes of robo-cops. The cast is rounded out by two dry British agents, a cat-suited Chinese sniper, and Cain, a flamboyant French robot. Throughout the game Dan is cryptically referred to as “the Survivor”. You want to know why? So do I, but the game forgets about that plot point.
As with Brink, a lot of my disappointment from Binary Domain came from what could have been. I was hoping for a deep discussion on the ethics of robotics and artificial intelligence, but all I got for my hopes and dreams was a six-hour slog through endless waves of droids. The game is more repetitive than an escalator.
One of the biggest problems I had with the wafer-thin plot was a massive disconnect between spoken and silent dialogue. Dan Marshall talks, a lot, in this game’s overly long cutscenes. During the gameplay, players have the option to communicate with their squadmates. This mechanic was championed by Sega as the next great step in character relationship building, but it feels quite the opposite. When a squadmate asks Dan a question, players can choose one of two reply options, but there’s no spoken dialogue; just a little “beep!”, and the NPCs respond. This created a silent vacuum where true character building could have taken place. It doesn’t help that some of the dialogue choices made no sense. At one point, I was asked “Should we take a shortcut?” by my British commander, and my only response choices were “you fool”, and “goddammit”.
Hey! Dan, you dumbass! Take the shortcut, it’ll make this game go by faster!
The point of this little system is to build positive relationships with your team, so that they’ll more readily follow your suggestions. As long as you just give the nice response (when possible) you’ll be fine, so there’s no challenge to this mechanic. Your teammates will also shout the same recycled cheers and frustrations over and over again, which got old after the first half hour or so.
The next design problem I need to punch in the liver is the spoken dialogue itself, which is poorly written. Conversations are dragged out mercilessly in the cutscenes, and the script is riddled with enough cliches to satisfy an 80s action movie. Every character occupies a neat little stereotype. Charles and Rachel, the Brits, speak in Cockney accents and constantly refer to Dan as “Yank”, while French robot Cain cannot quit his insufferable French womanizer routine to save his cybernetic life. As with a lot of Japanese games and media, the characters often spend ten seconds staring at something and going “Ohhhhhhh” really loudly. I’ve always found that to be funny.
The only character not overly stereotyped is Faye Lee, the Chinese sniper. But, don’t worry, she’s plenty sexualized, with super-tight catsuit armor and big, childlike eyes. Her accent is only slightly Chinese. If it wasn’t obvious enough already, she’s the love interest, altered to better appeal to western teenagers. The game is also stuffed with laughable melodrama. There’s a section where you activate an elevator ahead of a robot swarm, but right before getting in and escaping, one of your teammates gets out, faces the robots, and says “so this is how it has to end.”
NO! It doesn’t have to end that way, you moron! You could have gotten away just fine! Creating drama out of thin air will make gamers laugh, not tear up. Christ…
The final nail in this coffin of a narrative is the cutscenes. The game has at least 10-15 painfully long pre-rendered videos that swallow whole battles and action sequences, while I sat there quietly, thinking “Damn, I wish I could actually be doing this!” This is a criticism I have of a lot of games, especially Final Fantasy, but cutscenes that are both too long and too numerous pull the player out of immersion and into tedium. We get bored, watching entire plot lines play out without any interactivity on our part.
Interactivity is what makes games more immersive as stories than other kinds of media, so having that taken away makes us feel frustrated and disconnected. Such is my biggest problem with Binary Domain; the dude who made this game seems to have slipped into a split personality in which he’s a film director rather than a game designer. Toward the end of the game, I suffered an agonizing 20-minute cutscene and FINALLY got to play again, but only managed to run down a short corridor before the game paused an ANOTHER 20-minute cutscene played. This is not good storytelling!
Though the plot is weak and riddled with open wounds, the gameplay is a workable if unexceptional round of third-person shooting. You can pick up sexy robot guns and blast away legions of metalheads.
Binary Domain also features tedious boss fights with gigantic robotic monsters. I often wondered how a big robotic ape that roars and pounds its chest fits into the police department’s security hierarchy, or a skyscraper-sized thing with spiked steamrollers for feet.
Binary Domain does significantly better in the art department. Dan and his team navigate 2080s Tokyo from top to bottom, starting out at a giant seawall and moving in to a big metropolis. The visuals in these areas are impressive, but a lot of them are far away. They act more like skyboxes and backgrounds than an environment I can actually explore.
There’s one enjoyable section where you traverse some city ruins, and the pacing felt more organic, but the rest are pretty tedious slogs through steel corridors and walkways.
By 2080, Japan has devolved into a totalitarian state, but I don’t feel like the designers took advantage of this in the art design. Tokyo is a gleaming metropolis that does not at all reflect themes of dictatorship and loss of freedoms.
It’s pretty, but there’s no connection between it and the attempted darkness of the story. The voice actors weren’t bad in an of themselves; I blame the script.
I don’t really have anything else to say, at this point. The game’s environment is pretty much one big, glossy city with a few sewer bits that look pretty much like any other sewer. There’s one part where you have to jetski down a giant cistern, which was fun, but the rest of the game’s pacing is monotonous.
Binary Domain‘s plot is nearly incomprehensible, and there’s nothing in its gameplay you won’t find in other, better shooters, like the Mass Effect series and Spec Ops: The Line. I was kept from enjoying this game by bad plot and endless waves of robots. It’s clear that Sega is not the same company as the one that brought us the Dreamcast era of games. And as long as they put out works as crappy as this, they will never return to grace.
You can buy Binary Domain here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.